Roald Dahl’s school days: sport and the secret motorbike

Posted by
Tilly Burn, Archive Assistant at the Roald Dahl Museum
Posted on
1:00pm, 15th February
Roald Dahl's schooldays

We delve into Roald Dahl's childhood to find out what kind of pupil he was at school.

Roald Dahl didn’t much like school, as his memories in Boy make clear. His reminiscences about cruel teachers and bullies are a great source of inspiration for his stories, like his short story Galloping Foxley and the well-known nasty headmistress Miss Trunchbull in Matilda.

Even though Roald didn’t enjoy school, he was a popular and mischievous boy. He had lots of energy and his report cards make it clear that although he may not have been the most academic child, he was brilliant at sport.

Roald Dahl's school report

Above: Roald Dahl's school report from 1929.

Roald played a lot of sports as a child, as many as he could get his hands (and feet) on, and his letters home to his Mama, Sofie, are filled with references to how well his teams fared on the pitch, even when things didn’t necessarily go to plan:

We played St Dunstans they beet [beat] us about 8 goals to 6 in the first elleven [eleven], and 8 goals to 1 in the second elleven.

Roald also played cricket, rugby, swam and was in the Repton Fives final team – fives is similar to squash, but you use your hands as the racquet. It was invented in Britain in about the 18th Century, and is traditionally played in English public schools like Repton, Eton and Rugby.

Roald Dahl in his fives team

Above: Roald Dahl (far left) with his fives team at Repton.

In another letter home to his littlest sister, Asta (who was probably thrilled to receive these letters given that she was only 6 years old) Roald talks about an ill-fated game of rounders which he “hadn’t the foggiest idea how to play”:

As Roald grew up, his energy hardly seemed to diminish and his desire to race around manifested itself in an altogether more exciting form, his motorbike. It was a second-hand Ariel 500cc, and he used to love speeding around the countryside on it. However, leaving it at home when he went back to school proved troublesome, and in a letter back home to his family Roald calls his older half-brother, Louis “a damn fool” for taking his bike out and breaking the mascot which Roald had attached to it. 

Roald Dahl on motorbike in Boy gallery

Above: Roald Dahl on his motorbike, pictured in the Roald Dahl Museum.

Roald took his bike up to Repton in his final term in 1934 when he was 17, possibly to stop Louis from causing another accident… His bike had to be kept totally secret, and Roald hid it in a local garage, along with his helmet and goggles, to prevent his schoolmasters from finding out. Although in My Year, Roald describes one heart-stopping moment where he comes across his headmaster, Dr Geoffrey Fisher (who went on to be Archbishop of Canterbury):

“He glared at me as I rode past, but I don’t think that it would have entered his brainy head for one moment that I was a member of the school.”

Roald’s energetic spirit got him through his school years – he let fireworks off with his bare hands, had many a conker fight and enjoyed exciting summer holiday excursions – and all these were far better (in his opinion) than maths or science! He recalls these memories with great fondness, in Boy and later in My Year, published after his death.